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HomeNL-2009-06 One Man's Trash

One Man's Trash...
June, 2009
John Rich
On a recent paddling trip on the Brazos River, our small group stopped to rest on a nondescript gravel bar. These gravel bars are known to contain fossils - you can usually find some pieces of petrified wood, and, if you're really lucky, dinosaur bones. I found a nice assortment of palm-sized petrified wood, and along with that, a pottery fragment that contained part of a maker's mark on it. I tucked the piece into my pocket and decided to research it at home and see what I could find out about it. And that is the beginning of a very interesting story.
  Pottery fragment
Shown on the right is the particular find which this story is about. The fragment is about 2½ inches tall, 1¾ inches wide, and five-sixteenths inches hick. It's flat and unremarkable except for that mark on it. About one-third of the left side of the maker's mark is missing. (Click on the thumbnail photos to view a full-screen version in a separate window.) What do you suppose we can find out about this pottery fragment from this maker's mark?

After poring over the internet for quite a while, here's what I've discovered.  
The "Baker & Co." on the scroll at the bottom of the mark refers to Baker & Co., of Fenwick, England. The company was owned by William Baker, and it mass produced pottery goods for the commoner class, for export to the United States, Africa and India. They were in business from 1839 to 1932.

  Full company logo
Here is what the complete company trademark looked like (right). You can see that a horse is missing from the left side of the shield in my piece.

Given those company business dates, my fragment could be anything from very old, to not so old. But there's another important piece of information: Mr. Baker added "Ltd" to his company name and mark in 1893. And my piece contains no such addendum on it. Therefore, my pottery shard probably comes from an item that was manufactured between 1839 and 1893. And that dates it to the true pioneer days of early Texas history, after the Texians had won their independence from Mexico in 1836, been accepted into the United States in 1845, and fighting Indians up to about 1880.

This piece was found a few miles south of where the Brazos River flows under Highway 59 in Sugar Land. So where might it have come from? The Brazos River is rich in early Texas history. Brazoria County has pioneer history from being part of the Mexican land grants given to "the original 300" settlers by Stephen Austin. The area was once populated with cotton and rice plantations. And further upstream is San Felipe, the original Texas settlement of Anglo Americans. Even further upstream is Washington on the Brazos, where Texas delegates met to sign the Texas Declaration of Independence from Mexico, and which also served as an early capital of Texas. Steamboats formerly traveled the Brazos River, taking goods upstream, and hauling cotton back downstream, destined for Europe. This pottery fragment has had up to 160 years to tumble downstream to the gravel bar where I found it. There is no telling from whence it originated.

So this lonely pottery fragment was made in England in the 1800's, shipped to the United States by boat, whereupon it traveled across America probably by train and wagon, to end up in the home of a Texas pioneer right here in the Houston area. And at some point the pottery was broken and discarded, to be washed into the Brazos river.

    Baker Co. whiskey jug
What might this piece of pottery have come from? I'm unable to make any educated guess about that. The pottery produced by the Baker Co. was too varied, and my fragment too small, for me to identify anything as a possible match. It could have been something as simple as an old-fashioned whiskey jug. Maybe one of General Sam Houston's whiskey jugs!

But wait! There's more to this story on the British side, where the pottery was manufactured. William Baker was an architect who bought an existing pottery factory in 1765 in Fenton, England, for his son. The son was also named William - William Baker II. That pottery factory was run as a partnership with another man. William II had a son, whom he also named William - William Baker III. He too was involved in the pottery business: grandfather, father and son, all named William Baker.

In 1839 the other partner in the pottery company died, and William Baker III re-named the company in his name alone, leading to the company logo seen on my pottery fragment. So this pottery factory had already been in business for 74 years, dating from the time of the American Revolution, when it finally took on the name "Baker & Co." 
The Baker family was quite successful in business, and also quite philanthropic with their wealth. The Baker's were known as "the family who built Fenton", because of the many acts of charity they did for their home town. The Bakers built houses in Fenton, built the town church, and even built a new town hall, all with their own money, as gifts to the town.  More fascinating information about the Baker family, can be found at this web site, along with photos of their pottery factory, homes, church and town hall: here

So now this piece of pottery has taken me half-way around the world to England, and back in time 244 years. But wait, I'm not done yet!

    Royal Coat of Arms
What about that company logo, consisting of a shield flanked by a horse on the left, and a unicorn on the right? This is taken from the Royal Coat of Arms of England, which is very similar, except that the Royal emblem has a lion on the left. A more detailed image of that is attached. This image allows you to see the tiny figures inside the quadrants of the shield, which are mostly lions. Lots and lots of lions. The bottom left symbol, which is just a blob on my fragment, could be Casper the Ghost for all you can tell. But on this Royal emblem, it reveals itself to be a harp made to look like a topless angel in flight. She's much more beautiful than Casper. Many potteries adopted this form of emblem for their company, and then simply added their own name to the scroll at the bottom.

The phrase on the bottom of the Royal Coat of Arms is "Dieu et mon droit", which refers to the divine right of the King to rule, and was first adopted as the royal motto by King Henry V in the 15th century.

There is one final piece of information to this story: the motto written around the edge of the shield of the Baker & Co. logo, and likewise on the Royal Coat of Arms. On my fragment, the beginning is partially missing, but searching with the remainder of the phrase, reveals that it says; "Honi soit qui mal y pense". This phrase comes from Old French, and means; "Shame be to him who thinks evil of it". This statement originated when King Edward III was dancing with the Countess of Salisbury in the year 1348. Her garter slipped down to her ankle, causing those around her to snicker at her public embarrassment. In an act of chivalry, Edward picked up the garter and placed it around his own leg, saying; "Honi soit qui mal y pense". That ended the snickers, and preserved the Countess's dignity.

From that experience, King Edward created the Most Noble Order of the Garter, which was the first, and remains the most prestigious, British order of chivalry. The exclusive club included the King and 25 knights, and was an attempt to resurrect the legendary Knights of the Round Table of King Arthur. The knights of the order wore a garter as part of their uniform.

    Order of the Garter
"Honi soit qui mal y pense" is also the motto of this Order of the Garter, and appears on their own emblem, featuring a knight on horseback slaying a dragon, under an arc of a lacy garter belt.

Apparently the Baker family believed in the principles of honor and chivalry which this phrase represents, and kept it on their own company logo.

Now we finally come to the end of this story. It's a story which has taken me from a pottery fragment on the banks of the Brazos River in Texas, in 2009, through the days of Texas pioneers in the late 1800's, to England and a philanthropic family of pottery makers from the 1700's, all the way back to the year 1348 in England, with a chivalrous knight coming to the aid of a damsel in distress. It's been a fascinating journey of 661 years! And it all originated from a simple piece of trash. 
"One Man's Trash... is Another Man's Treasure"

The author, John Rich